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It's odd to include the dates of a biographical subject's life in the title of the biography/memoir. But in the case of Frank Plumpton Ramsey, one of the truly great geniuses of the twentieth century, the shortness of his life hangs as a cloud of regret over discussions of him and work and what he could have achieved. During his brief time, he was a critic and advisor to John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein. His friends included Virginia Wolf, Lytton and James Strachey, G. E. Moore, Maurice Schlick, I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden. He sought psycho-analysis personally from Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank, finally receiving analysis from Theodor Reik. His younger brother by one year, Michael Ramsey, became the influential and liberal Archbishop of Canterbury. And there is a professorship named after Frank P. Ramsey at the Harvard Business School, the name having been chosen by the decision theorist Howard Raiffa..
Frank Ramsey's sister, Margaret Paul, was fourteen when her brother died and Ramsey had been away at school and then as a fellow at Cambridge University during most of her lifetime. But she has done extensive research, and made good use of Ramsey's and others letters, to provide a very interesting account of his life. Perhaps even more interesting, is the light she shines upon the intellectual life and mores at the highest level of the inter-war period in England and, to a lesser extent, in Austria. The intellectual life was amazingly intense and included a willingness to cross disciplinary boundaries of politics, economics, philosophy, logic and mathematics. There is a gruesome account of the brutality of the public (i.e., private) school system in England and how Ramsey's health suffered under it; an account of the exclusive, semi-secret society, "the Apostles"; a good description of Ramsey's leftist political views and of the milieu that produced the infamous communist infiltration of British Intelligence after WWII. The technical details of Ramsey's achievements in economics, philosophy, logic and mathematics are sketchy. Still, we read of Bertrand Russell's massive Principia Mathematica (with A. N. whitehead), an attempt to justify the certitude of all of mathematics by deriving it from simple logical principles. (Russell was forced to re-write after Ramsey's critical review.) The eccentric Ludwig Wittgenstein, scion of Austria's wealthiest family, writes his short Tractatus Logico Philosophicus, then retires to teach grade school in rural Austria having, on his account, solved all philosophical problems. (It was a nineteen-year-old Ramsey who initially translated this work then visited Wittgenstein in the woods of Austria to show him where he'd gone wrong.) John Maynard Keynes, the fierce opponent of the WW I Treaty of Versailles and "economist-devil" of conservatives everywhere, is forced by his young friend Frank Ramsey's critique to discard the central claim of his book on probability theory.
Finally, Margaret Paul does not sanctify her brother, Frank. Her account and his letters show him to reflect the anti-Semitism prevalent in his time. Another letter has him casually describing to his wife the joy of "copulating" with a woman who was a mutual friend.
I write about Ramsey as someone whose life was altered by his genius. In the late 1960's, as a philosophy graduate student, I was intrigued by an essay he wrote, "Truth and Probability." I studied it, delivered a paper to other grad students about it, wrote a dissertation on topics it dealt with and later co-wrote a book on decision theory and taught it in class. When my second child was born in the early 1970s, I made a stab at naming him Ramsey Alexander. My wife, Connie, had hardly to speak to assure me that it was not to be.
© 2017 John Mullen
John Mullen is the author, with Byron M. Roth, of Decision Making: Its Logic and Practice (2002)and more recently of the novel, The Woman Who Hated philosophers (2017).
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